Al Bemiller, who played on the Bills’ two AFL championship teams in the 1960s, came to Buffalo when he was drafted in 1961, and never left.
Bemiller chose the Bills over the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals, who had also drafted him, because he thought he had a better opportunity to play and because Western New York was closer to his hometown of Hanover, Pa.
Bemiller, who was the center on the Bills’ offensive line for 126 games over nine seasons from 1961-1969, died Wednesday, the team announced. He was 84.
Bemiller had gone to Syracuse University as a defensive end, using his wrestling background to swim past offensive linemen to take down a ball carrier or quarterback.
But Syracuse needed a center. The coach held a rather unconventional contest to see who the team’s starting center would be going forward. There were no pads, no sprints, no weightlifting competitions. Just one task. One test that required pinpoint accuracy. A football snap.
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“They had everybody come to a certain distance and said, ‘Whoever hits the doorknob is going to be the center,’ ” Bemiller told The News before his 2015 induction into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. “And I guess luckily, somebody upstairs was there with me and I was the only one who hit the doorknob.”
Even before Syracuse, Bemiller was a state championship wrestler at Perkiomen Prep in Pennsylvania, where he went for a year after high school.
Bemiller was first spotted by the Syracuse wrestling coach. Bemiller always wanted to play football and wrestle in college, so when there wasn’t a wrestling scholarship available, he was given a football one instead.
After he signed with the Bills, who had selected him in the seventh round, it didn’t take Bemiller long to connect with his new city.
“I thought the city was great because it was like a small town where I came from,” Bemiller said. “It’s not a big, big city and the people here were very good to us and I enjoyed every moment of it.”
Nothing was handed to Bemiller when he arrived in Buffalo. He earned his position. But if you ask him, he earned it again in a rather unconventional way.
One night, Bemiller and the starting center at the time went out drinking. Bemiller can’t exactly recall the player’s name (or maybe he’s just trying to save the man some embarrassment). Embarrassment from what? Well, when the two went out on the town that night, Bemiller had to carry his teammate home.
“I figured from that point on, I had the job,” said Bemiller with a laugh. “I was from Pennsylvania, we’re beer drinkers, you know.”
And wouldn’t you know, Bemiller became the team’s starting center. And once the job was his, he never let it go. He never even let the possibility arise that somebody could take his position. Bemiller never missed a game in his nine-year career.
“I didn’t want to miss any games because I figured anybody would get in there, they may be a little bit better than me,” Bemiller said. “I made sure I was there for every game.”
Buffalo hired John Rauch, who coached the Oakland Raiders before Buffalo, and Rauch cut almost every player over 30 by 1970. Bemiller fell in that category and was suddenly out of football.
Bemiller received offers from other teams, but his family opened up a nightclub in Hamburg that Bemiller said was “doing fabulous” and he didn’t want to uproot his family and leave that business behind. He sold the nightclub, Al Bemiller’s Turfside Lounge, in 1984.
He was a substitute teacher and wrestling coach at St. Francis High School, beginning in 1978, and led the program to three Catholic championships. He also helped with the football program at Buffalo State.
He worked 25 years as a recreation coordinator at Wyoming Correctional Facility in Attica.
In 2013, he was awarded the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Distinguished Service Award for long and meritorious service to the Bills organization by the Monday Quarterback Club.
Bemiller’s wife of 55 years, Wanda, died in 2015.
He is survived by his son Todd , three daughters, Tambra, Tanya, and Tia Dolegala; and five grandchildren .
His grandson Jake Dolegala was a record-setting quarterback at Central Connecticut and has spent time with several NFL teams. He played for Saskatchewan in the CFL this season.